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By Lisa Loomis
For many who decry Vermont's ever-increasing property taxes, school consolidation is touted as the panacea. A group of local educators, administrators and citizens took a year-long look into that very issue and came to a different conclusion.
The Education Synergy and Quality Study Group (ESQ) was formed last fall to take a look at factors affecting education costs, school quality and how to continue to deliver a quality education without paupering those who pay for the system. The ESQ group worked on independent analysis and is now reporting the results of its work to local school boards and area towns for them to consider.
The ESQ Group has 11 participants, including the Washington West superintendent Bob McNamara, local elementary school principals Roberta Barone, Chris Dodge, Andreas Lehner and Richard Schattman, and school board/community members Carolyn Bauer, Gayle Brown, John Donaldson, Rob Rosen, Missy Shea and Paul Sipple.
The ESQ Group studied various alternatives that would affect local education spending to determine if they offer operational efficiencies and/or financial benefits to the elementary schools in The Valley. Specifically, group members looked at the idea of privatization of local schools (from full to partial privatization), consolidation options (consolidating district, boards, schools, grades or by town) as well as sharing and collaborating on infrastructure and services.
ESQ Group members concluded that consolidation will not offer significant benefits for local schools for a variety of reasons.
"After studying current and projected enrollment data and detailed school budgets, and analyzing various alternatives, there does not appear to be significant enough operational efficiencies and/or financial benefits to make consolidation feasible in the very near future. The report presents the alternatives and financial models to support this conclusion," group members wrote in their report.
They looked at several options including completely consolidating the Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston and Moretown Elementary Schools into one school. They looked at consolidating by grade at specific schools such as putting all Pre-K through third-grade students from Fayston and Warren at the Warren School and having all grade four through six students from those two towns go to the Fayston School. They reviewed partial consolidation, closing one of the local schools and merging those students and staff into the remaining three schools. Finally, they studied consolidating the four elementary school districts into one district with one board.
Full consolidation was rejected fairly quickly by ESQ Group members. It was not studied further once school demographics and capacity data were analyzed. Looking at the maximum capacity of each school and its current number of classrooms as well as land around the school and expansion capability, ESQ Group members concluded that "it was clear that the significant extra financial costs of this scenario would greatly outweigh any potential financial or quality benefits.
"None of the four schools have the land or the septic capacity available to allow its facilities to be expanded to accommodate what would be a huge increase in students and classrooms (i.e., approximately tripling in size). There does not appear to be any land available that is already owned by any of the towns that has the location and size to facilitate one large school with 30-plus classrooms. Furthermore, while there are state and federal funds available for construction of new school buildings, the situation would not meet the necessary criteria of 'critical need' in the State Board of Education Rules. The four current school buildings are well maintained and there is no overcrowding situation to satisfy the "urgent needs" test to justify funds being made available," they wrote in their report.
Consolidating certain grades at specific schools may have some possibilities for cost savings/quality improvements, according to the study.
"There may be efficiencies if certain grades were located in one facility. This may result in fewer classes. This technique might also help smooth out the significant year-to-year fluctuations in grade size that some schools experience," ESQ members wrote in their report.
Potential financial savings from consolidation by grade would not be as high as savings from partial consolidation where one or more local schools would be closed. Partial consolidation was considered to determine if closing one or more schools might yield savings. Basing the analysis on enrollment and capacity, group members found a total schools population of 576 students and found that the only three-school combination that has a capacity greater than 576 is Moretown, Warren and Waitsfield. That meant, for this analysis, assuming Fayston would be closed and the 114 students in Fayston would be absorbed by the 128 extra spaces in the other three local schools.
With three schools, only 32 of the current 35 teachers would be needed, but there are only 31 classrooms in those three schools. Group members concluded that the only way to solve this, without building a classroom anywhere, would be to make a change in Warren.
"Warren offers more in early education programs than the other schools. Currently Warren has separate three-year-old and four-year-old Pre-K classrooms. If the three-year-old Pre-K was eliminated, only four Pre-K classrooms would be needed for a total of 31," the report noted.
"This analysis also ignores what could be a difficult logistic problem to determine exactly how many students from each grade (and which ones) go to which school. For example, if four classrooms are needed for a certain grade, how is that to be spread over only three school buildings? Ideally, the Fayston students would be given a choice of schools to attend, but it is more likely they would have to be assigned because of space constraints. Logistically, it would make sense for Fayston students in the German Flats Road area to attend Warren, those in the Bragg Hill area to attend Waitsfield, and those in North Fayston area to attend Moretown. Even this distribution of students might be difficult to achieve given how little excess capacity there is at each of the three schools," their report continued.
Consolidation of local schools -- either full, partial or consolidating certain grades -- does not appear to offer significant enough operational efficiencies and/or financial benefits to be recommended at this time, group members found, and also found that there is no clear benefit of consolidation that could measurably improve the quality of education.
Study group members concluded that there does not appear to be enough concrete benefits or significant savings for all the towns compared to the disruption involved. It is unlikely there would be enough incentive for Fayston voters, taxpayers or parents to support the idea of closing their school, even if school choice could be provided. The best case option studied for Fayston, that of a unified school district, yields less than a nine percent tax savings for Fayston residents and widely varying results for the other towns. None of the options studied yields good enough results for all four Valley towns to motivate them to cooperate in such a consolidation effort at this time. The total tax savings would be only about 60 percent of the less than $500,000 actual cost savings.
They noted that while consolidation does not seem viable now, it should be revisited every two years by a similar study group, or at the point when a local school is considering expansion or some other major capital expenditure.
"Each town clearly has it own identity, but The Valley towns do seem to be getting a wider sense of a "Valley" identity. It might help any future school consolidation studies to consider town consolidation as well. Consolidating town services with one grand list and one school district could yield bigger savings," group members pointed out.
Having rejected consolidation, ESQ Group members delved into other cost-saving measures such as privatizing elements of education that are not state mandated, and thus removing those costs from the costs which are used to factor in per pupil spending. Doing so reduces per pupil spending and the town's statewide property tax rate.
Contact a local school or ESQ Group member for a full copy of their report.